Kill Or Be Killed

Brian examines common trends across multiple Standard archetypes – what do Esper, Naya, and Mono Black all have in common? – and shows the pillars of the format that need to be built around and beaten.

It’s a dangerous world out there in Standard. If the lesson from Pro Tour Theros was the power of Devotion, what we have learned since then is the power of Doom Blade. While all the Gods except Heliod showed up in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, it is Erebos, God of the Dead, who has risen above the others. You don’t have to kill the Gods and destroy their shrines – you just have to kill all of their followers and their power will wane! Incidentally, this seems to be a lesson Magic players are learning far later than organized religion.

Erebos, God of the Dead

Just look at these removal packages from some of the Top 8 Standard decklists from the StarCityGames Invitational this past weekend in Indianapolis…

4 Detention Sphere, 4 Azorious Charm, 4 Supreme Verdict, 2 Hero’s Downfall

4 Hero’s Downfall, 3 Ultimate Price, 3 Devour Flesh

And the real kicker…

4 Anger of the Gods, 4 Chained to the Rocks, 4 Mizzium Mortars, 4 Selesnya Charm

Suffice it to say that Theros seems to be a world like that envisioned by Thomas Hobbes, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. It’s kill or be killed – that is, you kill your opponent’s creatures, whatever they happen to be, or you’re going to be killed by whatever ridiculous Devotion shenanigans they happen to pull off when you let them take their turn. With the power of both Nykthos and the Gods quite clear, it’s no surprise to see players resorting to a scorched-earth strategy when it comes to creatures.

Brad Nelson Naya Control takes this to the extreme:

Sixteen creature removal spells in the maindeck, including eight that can potentially wipe an opponent’s board and another eight that can exile even indestructible creatures gives this deck the tools it needs to fight off both Gods and minions. I noticed this deck’s success on Magic Online prior to the Invitational and thought it looked like it had potential. I had experimented with aggressive Naya decks before, but found they suffered too many difficulties with the number of enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands that are required to support a three-color manabase nowadays. A more-controlling deck can afford to play off-curve in the early turns because it can make up time with removal spells, especially with sweepers like Anger of the Gods – great at clearing out all kinds of Devotion-enabling cheap creatures.

Brad’s real motivation for choosing this deck, however, was its ability to combat the other removal-heavy decks. Mono Black Devotion was the big story coming out of Grand Prix Louisville, and it was unsurprisingly a common choice among many top players at the event. While the Mono Black Devotion decks are great at killing creatures, they’re much less great at killing enchantments. And while Devour Flesh, Hero’s Downfall, and Ultimate Price are suitable answers for most of the creatures you’ll face over the course of a tournament, they are not what you want in your hand when you’re facing down Assemble the Legion and a, well, legion of tokens.

Assemble the Legion

On top of Assemble the Legion, Brad’s deck has five planeswalkers that can generate creatures the moment they hit the battlefield. Not only do Xenagos and Elspeth offer value even if they’re taken out right away by a Hero’s Downfall, but they can also feed a hungry Desecration Demon long enough for you to find a copy of Chained to the Rocks or Selesnya Charm to take care of it permanently.

Despite his 8-0 record in Standard at the Invitational, Brad didn’t have high hopes for the deck’s continued success. He said on multiple occasions that Naya Control was a “one-weekend deck” aimed squarely at the popularity of Mono Black Devotion in the metagame and heavily reliant on the surprise factor of opponents not knowing what to expect and sideboarding poorly against him. It could also suffer from the growing popularity of another of our removal-filled decks from that Top 8…

Many predicted it would be Esper Control that would have the dominant showing that Mono Black Devotion had in GP Louisville, and it might have if pilots had played lists that looked more like this one by newly-minted Hall of Famer – and SCG Invitational Finalist – William “Huey” Jensen. While many Esper decks after the Pro Tour were modeled after Wafo-Tapa’s four Doom Blade list, Huey knew to expect Mono Black Devotion as a major player in the metagame and relegated all of his to the sideboard. He still came prepared with an abundance of removal to fight Devotion decks, headlined by Supreme Verdict, but all of his kill spells can take out a Nightveil Specter or Desecration Demon.

Esper Control isn’t the sort of deck that I typically play, but I definitely like Huey’s take on it. How do you deal with Mono Black Devotion’s disruption and card advantage? Why, you kill them, of course. Huey has the ability to sideboard up to a full four copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa, with two making the starting lineup. While Thoughtseize and Devour Flesh give them some hope of answering the Protection from Black vampire, Mono Black Devotion is still quite soft to Blood Baron, especially backed up by both Dissolve and Thoughtseizes of their own. The full four copies of Detention Sphere also give Huey’s list tools to handle Underworld Connections, which can otherwise let the Mono Black Devotion player run away with the game. Pithing Needle provides additional support from the sideboard, though it’s important to remember that you need to name the land that is enchanted to stop it from working, not Underworld Connections itself.

Much like Naya Control, Esper can use the full complement of Theros Temples to smooth out both its mana and the quality of its draws with scry, leaning primarily on Supreme Verdict to make up for lost time. That’s one characteristic that the big bad guy at the Invitational lacked:

Brian Braun-Duin ran it back with his GP Louisville deck almost unchanged – why mess with a good thing? This deck is essentially a Doom Blade/Thoughtseize deck, even if the Doom Blades themselves got relegated to the sideboard due to the mirror match. This deck is simply about trying to stop whatever it is the opponent is doing by trading one-for-one with removal and disruption while trying to inch ahead with the card advantage of Underworld Connections, Erebos, and occasionally Nightveil Specter. Oh, and it can randomly kill you with Desecration Demon or Grey Merchant of Asphodel too.

Mono Black Devotion has become the deck to beat thanks to its performances not only at Louisville but again at the Invitational. So if you’re looking to fight back – how do you combat a deck whose plan is simply to kill everything you play and draw more cards than you? Well, as usual in Magic, you have several options. You can fight directly against the strategy of the deck by playing individual threats that its removal can’t handle, like both Brad and Huey did with Assemble the Legion and Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Or you can try to fight against the inefficiencies in the deck and punish it for relying on its life total as a resource.

While Mono Black Control is good at killing creatures, it isn’t good at killing lots of creatures, or killing fast creatures. Hero’s Downfall is not the removal spell of choice for a one drop, nor is Devour Flesh a great answer to a swarm of guys.

Patrick Sullivan shared this list as what he would play this weekend at the Standard Open in LA if he weren’t doing commentary:

I like a lot of what is going on here. The popular decks in the format are largely ponderous removal-based decks – what better way to punish them by playing a full complement of one-drops? Thoughtseize got you down? Once you’re done paying two life, I’m going to attack you for two. Then four. Then eight, and now you’re dead. That’s a nice Pack Rat you’ve got there, though.

I think the element of this list that I like the most are the number of Boros Reckoners – that is, zero of them. I see so many Mono Red Aggro lists that have four Boros Reckoners and I have to wonder what their plan is. I can understand aiming for synergy with Fanatic of Mogis, but I think his time is past. We are living in a world of Doom Blades, and playing cards like Reckoner and Fanatic gives your opponents efficient targets for their removal. Feel free to shoot down my Chandra’s Phoenix, though – it’ll come back for more in a heartbeat.

I also like the inclusion of both Rubblebelt Maaka and Peak Eruption. Maaka is a fantastic answer to decks that are trying to block, especially those that lean on creatures like Frostburn Weird. It’s not quite as good at getting past Master of Waves, but Patrick suggested Legion Loyalist as a way to get in a single alpha strike past the tokens – if Maaka is getting you by their Weirds, that might just be good enough. Peak Eruption is similarly fairly narrow in application, since it certainly isn’t intended to come in against other aggressive red decks or either G/R aggro or Devotion. It is, however, about the best possible card to cast against a Naya deck with four copies of Chained to the Rocks. Three damage, free my creature, and kill your land? Where do I sign up? Oh, and Nice Assemble the Legion. Maybe the soldier you get on turn six can hold back to block my Foundry Street Denizen who already killed you.

Rubblebelt MaakaPeak Eruption

In any case, if you are planning on playing creatures of your own in this dangerous world, you want to ensure that you’re presenting your opponent with awkward targets for their removal. Dropping your curve as low as possible is one option, as Patrick’s list shows. Playing as many multicolored creatures as possible to dodge Ultimate Price can help give you an edge against Mono Black Devotion, but then you still need a plan against Esper and Naya Control. Despite Brad’s warnings, other people are sure to pick it up as more than a one-weekend deck.

So it’s kill or be killed – be prepared to kill either your opponent or all of their creatures, and be prepared to do it fast. I know I have a nice little brew that I’m looking to try out this weekend at the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Los Angeles that follows these principles. Hopefully next week I’ll be back with a tale of triumph to go along with the deck breakdown.

Until next time,